A tense, volatile electoral season, accusations of “voter fraud,” and real instances of thuggery on the campaign trail. Documented instances of real voter suppression due to newly instituted state policies attempting to restrict voting disproportionately by race. Real or implicit threats of violence against minority voters. Surging anti-immigrant and exclusionist sentiment, particularly against relative newcomers who practiced seemingly strange religions. And a beleaguered set of progressive civil rights and church leaders, who looked to the recent past when the signs seemed so much more hopeful.
Some might describe the recent electoral campaign that way, but I have in mind the election campaign of 1876. The Democratic candidate, the New Yorker, Samuel Tilden, appealed to aggrieved white voters tired of government intervention on behalf (as they perceived it) of newly enfranchised or non-white citizens. The Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, had his own set of issues involving corruption, and faced an electorate suspicious of his party’s identification with the freed people and their demands.
Tilden won the popular vote, and led Hayes with 184 electoral votes to 165 after the first count of votes. Disputed returns in three states, particularly Florida, left twenty electoral votes remaining. Eventually after much debate, Democrats in Congress agreed to cede those votes to the popular vote loser, Hayes, in return for an effective end to Reconstruction. Thus, Tilden became the only candidate ever to receive more than 50% of the popular vote, but lose the electoral college count.
In subsequent decades, newly “redeemed” state governments (“redeemed” from Reconstruction), under white Democratic control, instituted far-reaching measures of voter suppression that destroyed the effective intent of the 14th and 15th Amendments to ensure equality for emancipated slaves. The era that contemporaries trumpeted as “Redemption,” was unfortunately marked by a cleansing of the nation’s soul from the “alleged sins” of Reconstruction. Surging sentiments of white nationalism, xenophobia, and mistrust of government intervention towards those perceived as less worthy fueled growing tides of racist sentiment expressed politically and culturally.
Down to the 1876 gulf between the popular vote and electoral vote winners, the divisive campaign just fought has the feel of the era of Redemption,. More importantly, however, both elections empowered a significant counter-reaction to civil rights advances, and saw the rise of white nationalist groups (nowadays referred to with euphemisms such as “alt-right,” but in reality entirely similar to groups that rose to fight Reconstruction) to political and cultural prominence.
Nationally, the contemporary story has been hijacked by the focus on a “recount,” and of “voter fraud.” The first won’t change anything, and the second has been discredited repeatedly. For all the national talk of “voter fraud” in both cases, the real story for the long term was of carefully targeted voter suppression. That was starkly, often violently, true of the 1870s and 1880s. In more subtle and hidden ways, it is true today.
During the Reconstruction era, Black church leaders anticipated issues of suppression. Energized by the political opportunities opened up by the Reconstruction Act of 1867, they entered the political arena avidly and defended the civil and spiritual rights of the freed people. Meanwhile, white para-military groups and terrorist cells in the 1860s and 1870s focused on reversing the revolutionary political gains made by freedmen after the war. One ex-slave most succinctly expressed his view of what the violence endemic in the postwar South really meant: “That was about equalization after the freedom. That was the cause of that,” he said. Consequently, by the late nineteenth century, black political gains had been nearly completely wiped out, and the majority of black citizens again disfranchised.
During the Second Reconstruction – that of the 1950s and 1960s – the story ended differently. The passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, one made possible by the massive spiritual energies tapped by the Civil Rights Movement , provided effective enforcement mechanisms that guarded against a second Redemption. The federal government would not abandon the rights of black voters this time. The political climate of the country was revolutionized. Massive increases in black voting and office holding followed, and the Second Reconstruction spurred its own political counter-movement: the wholesale migration of white southerners from the Democratic to the Republican Party.
Flash forward to 2013, and effects of the Voting Rights Act were reversed. Chief Justice John Roberts, defending the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down key parts of the Voting Rights Act, declared that “Our country has changed.” Civil rights leaders joined the dissenters on the 5-4 divided Court in pointing out the ways in which the country had not changed. With states no longer requiring to “preclear” voting law changes, voter suppression violently accomplished during Redemption could now be legally achieved in the ongoing Second Redemption.
In 2013, North Carolina legislators tried to lead the way. They drafted a new state voting requirement law that would disproportionately reduce black and Latino voting. Documents later uncovered revealed that, as the circuit-court opinion put it, the restrictive voting measures targeted African Americans “with an almost surgical precision,” helped along by data collected by Republican legislators in the process of drafting the law. The racially discriminatory intent was obvious. An appeals court struck down the law. A divided 4-4 Supreme Court left that reversal in place. In 2017, the new Supreme Court coming may well decide differently.
Voter suppression through the closure of polling facilities, carefully crafted voter ID laws, the disfranchisement of ex-felons, the restriction of early voting days, and like measures suggest the new mechanisms by which a second Redemption will take place. Nationally, well over eight hundred polling facilities closed from 2012 to 2016. In Mississippi, for example, state authorities closed the polling place at the Mt. Olive Baptist Church – where the three civil rights workers had visited shortly before their murder in J une 1964.
Church leaders, both white and black, played a key role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. White evangelicals today, in supporting candidates that enact voter suppression laws, can be seen as reprising their roles as leaders of the forces of Redemption, down to repeating discredited charges of “voter fraud.”
And thus, the struggle for the ability to exercise democratic rights continues even today. As with the eras of Reconstruction and the civil rights years of the 1950s and 1960s, the role of progressive church people in mobilizing on behalf of an expansive democracy will be key to its preservation. As the leaders of the civil rights movement knew, freedom is a constant struggle.
Featured image credit: “United States Capitol.” CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.